SIOM #16: One of the Greatest Guys in the World

One need not be a running aficionado or even have so much as a passing interest in the sport to know the name Haile Gebrselassie. The Ethiopian has won multiple Olympic and World Championship gold medals as well as  major championship gold medals in distances ranging from 1,500m to 10,000m and has placed first in nine of the eleven “big city” marathons that he has entered to date. This week’s instalment is not about him, although that would be fitting, given current events in his country, the nature of which is nevertheless a feature of this article.

Sporting immortality is generally granted to those who have prevailed. The champions. The winners. Many of the performances that have bestowed immortality were, however, borne of rivalries with those who didn’t do quite as well and who, consequently, aren’t nearly as famous. Lance Armstrong won the Tour de France for seven consecutive years, from 1999 to 2005. The lesser known Jan Ulrich boasts a single victory (1997) with second places on either side of that and on three further occasions during Armstrong’s run. Pete Sampras won fourteen grand slams, prevailing over Andre Agassi in the final on three of those occasions (and losing to him in a grand slam final just once). Armstrong and Sampras had the courage and self belief to triumph over stiff competition, but the competition’s contribution to their performance and to sporting history is often overlooked. Paul Tergat’s contribution to Gebrselassie’s achievements and distance running history is often overlooked, although he is, according to Wikipedia, “one of the most accomplished long-distance runners of all time”.

In the words of Jerry Seinfeld, “I love the Olympics, but I think I have a problem with the silver medal. These races, the margins are a few hundredths of a second. The difference between gold and silver is: greatest guy in the world, never heard of him”.

Paul Kibii Tergat was born on June 17 in Kenya’s Rift Valley Province. Unlike many athletes, Tergat recorded his first significant victory (and competed for his country) only after he had finished high school. His status as a relatively late bloomer could be partly attributed to his malnourishment as a child, as his family was too poor to send him, and his sixteen siblings, to school with food. By Tergat’s admission, he went to bed hungry and would not have been educated had it not been for the UN World Food Program, which provided lunch at school and gave him the strength to start running the three miles to and from school from age eight. Gebrselassie had run his commute too and, as a result of carrying his schoolbooks during his childhood, still runs with his left arm at a crooked angle.

After high school, Tergat sought a way to earn a living, to earn the money that would feed his siblings and educate them, such that they may have the same opportunities that he did. Fortuitously, the military was the training ground of many Kenyan distance stars and gave Tergat the exposure and competition he needed to finally realise his talent. His first major victory came in 1995 at the relatively ripe old age of 26, when he won the World Cross Country Championships. His dominance in this event is without peer, as he remained champion until 1999, recording five consecutive victories. In Tergat’s words, “”Cross country is what I always liked most. It was my world, my passion.” In 1999 he also won the World Half Marathon Championships, repeating this feat the following year, having set the half marathon world record in 1998 (a record that stood for over seven years).

Judged by the strictest of standards, Tergat was not as successful in other major competitions. On more than one occasion, the same man stood between him and the top step of the podium. Tergat and Gebrselassie faced each other in four major 10,000m races. In the 1996 Games in Atlanta, Gebrselassie beat him by less than one second. Video footage of this event (all copies of which are part of a montage with the 2000 Games in Sydney, hence their exclusion so as not to ruin the climax of this article) shows that Tergat was first to embrace and congratulate Gebrselassie. A year later, at the 1997 World Championships in Athens, Gebrselassie again prevailed, this time by marginally more than a second over silver medallist Tergat. Tergat, buoyed by his cross country and half marathon performances, kept believing. He met Gebrselassie at the 1999 World Championships in Seville, only to once again take silver to Gebrselassie’s gold (the margin this time just shy of 1.5 seconds).

As they lined up at the start of the 10,000m final at the Sydney Games, Tergat had one last chance to beat his great rival, having lost to him at the previous Games and two World Championships since. The smart money was on Gebrselassie, who was undefeated over the distance for the preceding seven years. Tergat had to believe that he could prevail in the face of overwhelming odds. He had to have the conviction that his best effort would be sufficient to earn the greatest reward. As world record holder in the event for 9 months between August 1997 and June 1998, he was in with a chance (although he’d taken the record from Gebrselassie, who had subsequently claimed it back). Tergat had said, “Ask yourself, ‘Can I give more?’ The answer is usually ‘yes’.” Only with an effort that would answer that question differently would he be able to beat Gebreslassie.

What unfolded in Sydney is without doubt one of the most incredible distance races in history, a fitting culmination to one of sport’s great rivalries. The footage is longer than all that I have featured to date (at some four minutes), but I implore you to watch it all, for the grace and synchronisation of the lead pack and for the finish that defies belief and transcends the realm of the possible:

For all the gold medals that were arguably denied him, and the world records taken from him, by Gebrselassie, Tergat has remained an ambassador to good sportsmanship. Nicknamed “The Gentleman” he has had nothing but praise for the man he calls “my brother”. Following the 2000 Games, their rivalry continued over the marathon distance. Tergat edged ahead for a while, winning the 2003 Berlin marathon in a world record setting 2h04m55s. In 2006, many looked forward to their first face off over 26.2 miles at the London Marathon, from which Tergat had unfortunately to withdraw with a calf injury. Following his exit, he said, “I would bet on Haile – he is a smart guy, he has learned a lot about tactics.” Tergat’s marathon record stood until Gebrselassie ran the same race four years later, triumphing in 2h03m59s, the current world record. In the run up to the 2010 New York marathon (an event that Tergat had won in 2005), he was asked, “What would you advise a runner who found themselves level with Gebrselassie with 200m remaining? What would you tell him?” Tergat paused, smiled and said, “That he has no chance”.

For all of his achievements, Tergat has remained cognisant of his roots and eternally grateful to the World Food Program. In January 2004, he was named a UN World Food Programme “Ambassador Against Hunger”. The following year, he established the Paul Tergat Foundation, intended to help disadvantaged Kenyan sportspeople. He also runs Sports Marketing and PR company Fine Touch Communications (which organises the annual Sportsman Of the Year Awards in Kenya, his intention being to provide the youth with role models).

For his character, his example and his achievements both on and off the athletics track, I give you Paul Tergat: one of the greatest guys in the world.

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